Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Should Publishers Trust Their Authors? or, Hiroshima Mon Cul

[Thanks to the Huffington Post, which ran this piece on their lively Books page today. You may see future posts of mine there from time to time.]

The kerfuffle of the week has been the news that an acclaimed new book, The Last Train from Hiroshima by Charles Pellegrino, had to be withdrawn by its publisher following the revelation that important details in it, including the testimony of a supposed eyewitness source, were apparently fabricated. 

As happened in earlier cases of authors doctoring the truth, some readers have raised questions about "quality control" problems in publishing, and asked, don't publishers fact-check their products?

Well, no, actually. A major difference between book and magazine or newspaper publishing is that publishers don't have fact-checkers on staff, and never have. This is not, as some cynics might suppose, because book publishers don't care about accuracy as long as a book sells. It's partly because, unlike those media where advertisers support (or used to) a large editorial staff, book publishing has been a far leaner enterprise (or as some would say, a cottage industry).  But a more important reason, I believe, is that in book publishing, unlike journalism, the content has traditionally belonged to the author, not to the house.

This is reflected in book contracts, where copyright is typically retained by the author; more to the point, it's firmly established in publishing culture that you never make editorial changes without an author's consent. As an editor you may lean pretty hard on an author to make revisions you feel are necessary (Gordon Lish's interventions with Raymond Carver being the extreme example)--but ultimately, "the book belongs to the author," and to change it or not is his or her prerogative. With that prerogative goes, inevitably, a greater responsibility for the quality of what you write.

Now, any good publisher wants to produce the best books possible. While we don't have fact-checkers, we have copyeditors who go through manuscripts with a fine-tooth comb, after the editor has already worked with the author to get the book in shape. I have done my own fact-checking from time to time when an author's statement seemed questionable, and the best copyeditors will frequently check sources as well as spelling and punctuation. Furthermore,  any manuscript that might raise issues such of defamation or privacy goes through a careful legal review. In the end, though, we have to trust our authors.

I don't take on a work of nonfiction, especially a controversial or even unconventional one, without satisfying myself, perhaps just at gut level, that the author is presenting the truth responsibly. But I have to recognize that I can be fooled. Reading about the case of Charles Pellegrino, who supposedly produced--or at least, said he had--documentation of his bogus souce (who was a real person, but apparently not present at the event he claimed to witness), I suspect I might well have accepted the author's account.

Once we have decided to trust an author, we usually give him or her the benefit of the doubt on matters of fact just as on matters of style or argument. Of course, this leaves us vulnerable. But in book publishers' defense, the impulse to trust the people you work with is a hard one to overcome. Look at the cases of Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass, or Jayson Blair, whose fabrications sailed through the presumably gimlet-eyed fact-checking operations of the Washington Post, New Republic, and New York Times respectively.

(Photo of the Bocca della Verita, or Mouth of Truth, at the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, via Wikimedia Commons. It's said that if you tell a lie with your hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it will be bitten off. Maybe every publisher needs one of these?)